03 December 2004


This time round, I'll be trying something different. The following entry is co-written with Alvarny in a series of discussions over the week.

Casino Royale

Part the First, where I bitch about the responsibilities of intellectuals; or
Where are the grown-up philosophers?

There's this debate going on for several weeks now in Singapore's policymaking circles about the wisdom of granting a casino license. The positions are getting entrenched between the Economic pro-casino legislators apparently headed by the Prime Minister and his cabinet, and the Moralistic anti-gambling coalition of some backbenchers and the general public.

On 18 November, just months after Mini-Lee tried to float the casino idea in his National Day address and subsequent flogging (or yes-manning) of the issue on the pro-side by the Straits Times and then debates in parliament, finally an academic spoke out on the issue. And it was the head of the Philosophy department in NUS too.

At the Institute of Policy Studies forum, Prof. Ten Chin Liew said:

"Individuals freely choose to gamble, it is no business of others to interfere with how they spend their legitimately acquired money."

"Freedom to gamble can thus be seen like freedom to engage in religious practices - as in a tolerant society, a majority does not impose its practices on a minority."

"Otherwise, many public projects of great value, such as expressways, would have been condemned right from the start because they affect some people adversely."

That's the head of philosophy from Singapore's national university for you, channelling the ghost of John Stuart Mill.

And e-props to all of you who went "WTF" reading the don's third paragraph.

Yes, someone along the line, the professor switches from an argument on absolute freedom to... public projects??? We are unable to discern the logic here, since the defense of public projects (for the greater good, but will inconvenience some people) is clearly a utilitarian argument.

It's an inept, toss everything into the salad bowl and mix and hope no-one notices the ingredients don't go together argument. From the head of the Philosophy department, nonetheless. And since the don hasn't bothered to write to the press demanding corrections, it's not a case of a paper hastily truncating a reasonable argument into something very incoherent (which it does occasionally).

Part the Second, where we bitch about the usefulness of intellectuals

What is galls us so is the complete irrelevance of this don and his argument. For starters, the issue is not about gambling. Gambling is already a legal activity via Singapore Pools, the Stock Exchange, and the donate to a TV charity show and stand to win prizes scheme).

No, the issue is about whether there should be a casino. And Prof Ten's "freedom to gamble" argument doesn't even address it. Although he does serve the function of a state-sponsored intellectual doing the noble service of public miseducation (or disinformation) for his masters.

The real issue is whether having a casino would generate greater negative externalities than Singapore Pools.

The concept of externalities is simple enough: any activity generates externalities. A conversation with my friend over the cellphone drives other passengers in the same train compartment nuts even though the social transaction is solely between my friend and me. Laying cables to expand the national cable TV grid generates externalities by depriving drivers of an optimal road, for instance.

In a casino where individuals 'freely choose to gamble', their actions have knock-on effects on their family budgets should they lose more than what they can really afford. That's just one of the tamer negative externalities for you.

Again: the real issue is whether having a casino would generate greater negative externalities than Singapore Pools. Where are the grown-up intellectuals who will actually discuss it?

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